Getting with the Times

Modernizing public safety communications


     The city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, chose Clearwire Corporation of Las Vegas, Nevada, to build a region-wide wireless mobile public safety network. The network's beauty is that it allows citywide public safety agencies to communicate with each other using radio communications, video streaming, photographs or other images in a mobile fashion. Before WiMAX, the city lacked the bandwidth to achieve streaming video, still pictures or building diagrams.

     "Police and fire have the need for this," stresses Ralph Gould, communications bureau manager for the Grand Rapids Police Department, who coordinated with other regional agencies to adopt WiMAX. "If we have a barricaded gunman or a hostage-taker at a bank or a house, being able to transmit views of the building that person has barricaded himself in to other decision-makers is very important."

     In the case of a fire, streaming video would be of greater value over still photos, he notes, "because it would be possible to transmit that not only to people in the immediate area, but also to other battalion chiefs and the fire chief's department itself to watch that incident without having to be at the actual scene."

     Armed with a powerful and wide-ranging frequency of 2.5 Ghz, WiMAX can speed up public safety dispatch and allow quicker access to databases by field personnel.

     This means, for example, that a SWAT team leader could access criminal or suspect records during a warrant search or hostage/stand-off situation.

     The Grand Rapids WiMAX buildout includes 20 transmitter-receiver sites throughout a region within the state that includes Grand Rapids and other jurisdictions. The cost for the system is shared by these jurisdictions to make it affordable for all users.

Need for standards

     No matter what interoperability option is chosen, "It's going to get down to standards," asserts Richard Mirgon, president-elect of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International. For years, manufacturers of equipment for networks have sold solutions built to varying standards, preventing other equipment within the same network from compatibly working with these solutions.

     Mirgon urges any entity purchasing a public safety network option to ask two key questions: (1) What tools are needed to accomplish the task for interoperability? (2) Can the vendor provide these tools within a standard?

     "At some point," he says, "the entity is going to collect information and then push it to another agency. If that agency doesn't have equipment that operates on that same standard, they won't be able to play it or use it. When there is a standard, you can solve problems sooner than you can with competing technologies."

     Welded to the standards issue, Mirgon emphasizes, is cost for building an interoperable public safety network. Manufacturers have typically made proprietary network equipment for a hefty price, locking in customers for years, and often with solutions that may not work with each other.

     "With a standard for everyone, it's more competitive and you can drive the price down," he says. "This will allow people to move data and information and talk to each other and better protect the citizens of this country."

Grants help pay

     Converting to new interoperable networks is ultimately what public safety entities must do, but since many of them are cash-strapped how can the conversion happen in the near future?

     Fortunately, grant money and grant applications guidance is available. Here are some options:

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, offers a 2009 Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program (www.fema.gov/government/grant/iecgp/index.shtm). The program gives assistance and equipment funding to states, territories, and local and tribal governments to execute initiatives to improve interoperable emergency communications.
  • State Departments of Public Safety may have special grant money for assisting with the creation of public safety networks.
  • SAFECOM (www.safecomprogram.gov/SAFECOM/) is a communications program of the Department of Homeland

     Security. Though not a grant-making body, SAFECOM has created coordinated grant guidance to help optimize the effectiveness with which emergency response communications-related grant dollars are allocated and spent. While at the site, for more information, click on the link: FY 2008 SAFECOM Grant Guidance.

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